November 3, 2015

Create a safe space for group interaction

The other day, I was talking to a client about some problems she had experienced during a presentation. She had encountered a group who was resistant to some of her ideas and essentially put up a roadblock to any further discussion. She didn't realize her topic was going to be so divisive and contentious and hadn't planned for how to deal with the few troublemakers who dominated the meeting. Afterward, she discovered that quite a few people in the room had wanted to speak up, but were not comfortable doing so.

Now for some of you who do trainings like this on a regular basis, where your topic might be controversial or uncomfortable to the group, you probably have some practices in place to prepare for and deal with dissent. But for those of you who are caught off guard by a difficult audience, or have a sneaking suspicion that you might encounter some resistance from your audience, there are a few things you can do to increase the group's trust and receptivity to your ideas and increase the group's willingness to engage with you and with each other.

Here are a few tips on how to create a safe space for your audience that encourages everyone to feel comfortable enough to speak up and share their feelings, experiences, and ideas.

1. Start with a group agreement

Together as a group, create some guidelines on a flipchart that spell out the behavior you would like to see in the group. Ask a question of the group like, "What would make this workshop a safe and respectful place for everyone?"

Take a few minutes to write down points offered by the group. If they leave out something that you consider important, ask them if you can add it to the list. Make sure the group understands each point, and then go over each item asking for the group's explicit agreement. Display the flipchart in the front of the room so that everybody can see it throughout the meeting.

If your meeting is short, bring your own pre-written guidelines, ask for any additions or changes, and get group agreement.

By asking for the group's agreement, you have now put guidelines in place for everyone to follow. And if you run into difficulty with members of the group refusing to demonstrate the behavior that they've agreed to, you're now in a position to ask someone to leave, if necessary. You can find examples of group agreements on the Internet; this is definitely not something that needs to be reinvented.

2. Start with small group activities before moving on to large group activities

If members of the group don't feel completely comfortable participating right at the start, having them do activities in pairs or triads is a way for them to test the waters, articulate their thoughts, and develop a comfort level within the group. This is a good idea for any group, whether or not there will be difficult issues. discussed. In general, most groups need to warm up to the idea of participating before the majority is willing to jump in.

Provide a couple of activities where participants are given the opportunity to discuss an issue, solve a problem, or share something personal with one or two other people, and through the process, you'll build trust with them and amongst the group. They'll be much more inclined to speak up when you bring those issues or concepts to the larger group.

3. Don't try to cram too many activities into a short presentation

Activities where you know your audience might experience some discomfort will require time for personal and group processing. Trying to do too many activities or exercises where the group doesn't have the opportunity to process their thoughts and feelings will just lead to chaos and disconnection.

4. Help the group feel empowered to come up with their own solutions

Oftentimes, when we're dealing with a difficult issue or problem, participants feel overwhelmed, powerless, and sometimes even personally attacked. Try to maintain a solutions-focused approach instead of focusing on all the things that are wrong now or have been wrong in the past. Asking the group to brainstorm a vision and forward-looking solutions brings a more positive energy to the room and helps reduce feelings of guilt, frustration, and powerlessness.

5. Bring in a neutral party

By "neutral party," I'm not referring to a person. I'm referring to a box! When I worked with youth discussing difficult and uncomfortable issues like puberty and reproductive health, the anonymous question box was some participants' best friend.

Some of your attendees will never ask a question or make a comment. That's just the way it is. However, offering a fun option like the anonymous question box allows everyone in the room to say what they want to say.

The trick to the anonymous question box is to make sure that everybody writes something. Hand out small pieces of paper to everyone in the room and tell them that, for the questions and comments to remain truly anonymous, everybody needs to write something down. This way, it's not obvious that certain people are submitting questions. In the past, I've gotten comments from participants like, "I like your earrings," or "What's your favorite food?" It doesn't matter what people write, as long as everyone has an opportunity to share their thoughts or questions.

This is an excellent way to bring up issues that people may not feel comfortable expressing in the large group. Your job is to answer every question or respond to every comment as honestly as you can and to the best of your knowledge and ability.

Next time you find yourself in a situation where the audience seems uncomfortable with or upset by your topic, try some of these ideas and see if your audience is more receptive to your message and more willing to participate.

August 23, 2015

Storytelling in 30 seconds - can you do it?

It's been a while since I posted about a TV commercial (ah, the beauty of the DVR), but here's one I came across recently that perfectly demonstrates the concepts of concise, compelling and clear storytelling. The message is delivered in 30 seconds, through visuals, music and exactly two spoken sentences.

Can you be this concise, compelling and clear in your messaging? Can you paint a picture with a few words and some visuals? I dare you to try!

August 12, 2015

Lessons from driving: Don't be a mechanical speaker

(c) Jenny Rollo
Do you remember what it was like when you were learning how to drive? There were so many things to pay attention to, so many details.

Where do I put my hands and my feet? When is it too soon or too late to press the brake pedal? How much pressure do I put on the gas? How exactly can I keep my eyes on the road if I'm also trying to look into two rear-view mirrors? And how exactly do I change the radio station while keeping both hands on the wheel?

I remember scraping against a pole in a narrow driveway because I just didn't have a concept of how wide my mom's car was!

When you're learning, every move is a conscious one. It can be overwhelming and even scary - especially when you're on the road in a 3,500-pound vehicle, trying to follow the rules of the road, drive the speed limit, change lanes, not crash into anything and not get a ticket!

Now, think about what it's like for you after having been driving for 30 or 40 years.

Most of what we do is completely unconscious. It's just natural to move our feet, hands, and eyes simultaneously in the practice of braking, accelerating, entering traffic, avoiding a raccoon crossing the road, taking a call on Bluetooth, and a million other things we do every day. In fact, I imagine that all of us have had that experience where we're SO much on autopilot that we get to a place and don't even know how we got there.

As a speaker, you aim for somewhere between ultra-conscious and ultra-autopilot.

If you have to consciously think about every motion, every facial expression, every story, you come across as wooden, rigid, or staged.

However, if you deliver every presentation on autopilot, then you lack attention and presence, and you lose your connection to the audience.

Both extremes put you into a mechanical mode that your participants can see and feel, making for an uncomfortable audience experience, to say the least.

How do you develop this speaking approach that's conscious but not too self-conscious, and autopilot but not in the clouds?

One thing: Practice.

Get in front of audiences every chance you get. Speaking to lots of audiences helps you get over the self-conscious over-awareness of everything your body and mind are doing.

Speaking to lots of audiences also allows you to get used to being in the moment and getting used to going with the flow of unexpected conversations and relationships that arise with each new group.

I certainly don't want to go back to the old days of having to think about every single thing my body is doing when I'm on stage. But I don't want to become so complacent about speaking that I don't even connect with my audiences.

How about you? Are you more self-conscious or more autopilot? How can you come closer to the middle?

July 27, 2015

It's a marathon, not a sprint

In May of this year, a long-time social media contact got in touch with me and scheduled a coaching consultation. She knew she needed coaching and was ready to roll. We spoke a couple of days later and put our first session on the calendar. She knew she was going to be busy, so we put our first session on the calendar a few weeks out.

Weeks passed and our first session approached. We got on the phone, but she wasn't feeling well, so we rescheduled.

The next week, she still wasn't feeling well, so we rescheduled.

Eventually, she discovered that what she thought was a simple illness was something more complicated that would require time and medications to heal. A couple more weeks went by.

FINALLY, we had a date on the calendar where she was feeling better and was ready to move forward.

Then *I* got sick.

And we rescheduled.

More than a month after our first scheduled session, we still haven't met. But guess what: Her speaking gig isn't until October. We've got plenty of time!

This is a bit of an extreme example of what can happen in trying to work out a coaching schedule between me and my clients, but the point is this:

When you don't give yourself enough time to go through the coaching process, to fit the sessions into your schedule, to do the homework, to practice, and to work around unexpected situations (my clients have had car accidents, births and deaths in the family, plumbing emergencies, illnesses, last-minute work trips and meetings, sick children and more that interfered with their careful planning), you are undermining your own possibilities of success.

If you're a less-experienced speaker, it's even more critical to give yourself plenty of time to fit your coaching and your implementation around your schedule. Think of your preparation as more of a marathon than a sprint. It's going to take some time to get to the finish line. Give yourself the time!

We're all busy, so when you call me for coaching and your presentation is in two weeks, how can you expect stellar results when you know you're going to be scrambling to get it together - and maybe dodging emergencies and unexpected monkey wrenches at the same time? Never mind my unexpected emergencies and monkey wrenches.

When you get the gig, that's when you call for the consultation. Presentation is still five months away? PERFECT. Take the time - you'll need it!


Do you have a speaking engagement on your calendar? Don't wait till the last minute. Schedule your free consultation now!

June 23, 2015

Thou shalt hide thy weirdness: Guest post by Jason Kotecki

Jason is a non-caped crusader fighting against Adultitis. I've been a fan of his work for years, and when he offered me this post, I jumped at the chance to share his writing with you.

If you've participated in my "Public Speaking for Awkward Dorks" program, you know that I'm already a big fan of weird. Enjoy Jason's post, and check out the link at the bottom to his new book!

Thou Shalt Hide Thy Weirdness

One day my four-year-old daughter Lucy was skimming down the sidewalk on her kick scooter.


She was gripping the handlebar with one hand and holding an open umbrella with the other. While wearing a bike helmet and snow boots. On a sunny, seventy-three-degree day.


It’s so weird that I’d bet anything that of the six billion plus people in the world, not one other person was doing and wearing the exact same thing at that moment. Maybe not ever or since. That’s as weird as it gets.

It was also a great big life lesson.

You see, in Lucy’s head, there was nothing weird about it. She was in the moment, free of pretense, and free of shame. She was living life the way it was meant to be lived.

Oh, how I wish I could be that free again.

In fact, we all were, in the beginning, when we were young. But eventually someone sees us living our bliss, decides it’s weird, and shames us. We get made fun of in the schoolyard, on the bus, or across the dinner table. For the first time, it occurs to us that some of the things we do might be looked upon with contempt by another person.

From then on, we start paying attention. We start noticing what’s “in” and what’s not. We take heed of the things that could get us ridiculed, singled out, and shamed. And we stop doing them. We smooth out the rough edges and start hiding our weirdness. And one by one, little parts of us die.

It’s quite possibly the greatest tragedy of our lives that as we end up spending most of them conforming to the world around us, all to avoid that feeling of shame ever again.

But the weird part of us is what makes us unique. And the unique part of us is what the world needs most.

Speaker, author, self-proclaimed freak, and my friend, David Rendall, says, “What makes us weird is what makes us wonderful.” He offers up Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as a perfect example. His unusual nose was weird; the subject of ridicule and derision. But on that fateful “foggy Christmas Eve,” it became an irreplaceable advantage, making him a hero.

Once in a while, you’ll see an elderly person who quit buying in to the lie that our weirdness is a weakness. They’re livin’ la vida loca, carefree and without reservation. On the surface, it’s easy to write them off as experiencing early stage dementia. But if you look closer, you’ll see that they have all their wits about them. They’ve just decided it’s too expensive to pay attention to what everyone else thinks, so they stopped trying to hide their weirdness.

They discovered that people only have the power to shame us if we give it to them.

Well I don’t want to wait till I’m seventy to embrace that truth. I don’t want to hide the best part of myself under a bushel. I want to live my life like Lucy: free, in the moment, and gloriously weird.

Won’t you join me?

- - -

Jason Kotecki is an artist, professional speaker, and author of the book "Penguins Can't Fly +39 Other Rules That Don't Exist," which uncovers some of the most useless so-called rules we can find ourselves living by. It explores some small but mighty actions you can take to turn your life into the fun, adventurous and exciting story you deserve. This beautiful 240-page hardcover work of art is a magical combination of Jason’s whimsical illustrations, humorous wit, and poignant anecdotes. Learn more at

June 10, 2015

Virtual networking: Open the circle

As I've written here before, I can be shy at networking events. But I've trained myself to put out my hand and introduce myself to people even if I feel inside like I want to run away.

If I'm going to go to the trouble to get out of my pajamas, put on makeup, and go to a live networking event, I might as well strike up conversations with strangers and try to make some connections.

Virtual networking is no different (except that I can keep my pajamas on).

When I attend a Twitter chat or Facebook networking event, I put out my virtual hand and I engage with people I don't know. How else am I going to meet new people if I don't engage with them?

Sadly, not everyone takes this approach to virtual networking.

There were probably 20 people on the Twitter chat I attended last week. I participated by retweeting others' comments, answering the moderator's questions and directly commenting on others' tweets.

But only the moderator engaged in conversation with me. One person answered a question I directly asked him. A few people retweeted my comments.

Lots of people were active, by the way; they were chatting with the people they already knew. A lot of inside jokes, personal comments and conversations among those who were already friends.

It felt like walking into a live networking event full of strangers, where everyone is in groups, standing in closed circles, not making eye contact, and only interacting with their friends.

I'm sure you've been in that situation before. It feels super uncomfortable, and it takes a lot of courage to infiltrate one of those groups and try to join the conversation.

I'm probably not the only one who experienced this during the chat, as many of the participants appeared to be in individual bubbles, commenting and answering questions with no one responding to them.

I didn't let that stop me from participating and getting what I needed from the conversations, but that's me.

What about someone who's very shy and uncomfortable speaking up in situations where they don't know anyone? Did that person participate at all? Did that person get anything out of the chat? Did that person feel welcome and invited or awkward and uncomfortable?

Whether a networking event is live or virtual, the best way to build relationships and connections is to make others feel welcome.

Act like a host, not a guest - especially if you already know a lot of people in the (chat) room.

Look for people who are "standing in the corner" (yes, they're online, too) and engage with them. Let them know that you're listening and paying attention to them. Get them involved. Help them feel connected.

Instead of creating your comfort zone of friends and colleague and standing in a virtual "closed circle," open the circle and invite new people in.

We grow our connections by opening the circle. Cliques are for middle school.

June 1, 2015

How is public speaking like dating?

Have you ever been on a date?

Did you enjoy it? Did you hate it? You've probably had both experiences!

Did you ask the other person out? Did they ask you out? Maybe you've just kind of eased into it by saying "We should do something sometime." (I used that one on my hubby when we were still getting to know each other.)

Did/do you find dating stressful? Scary? Uncomfortable? Nervewracking?

Did/do you feel like you were on display? Being judged?

There is an important purpose behind dating: You hope to find your soulmate, your life partner, or at least someone you enjoy being with for a while. Most of us would like to have a special someone in our lives that we can share some level of intimacy with, and dating helps us find that person.

Dating also helps you discover who you are as a person. Dating helps you test out who you are and who you want to be in a relationship. Dating helps you figure out your communication skills, your self-awareness, your self-perceptions and what kind of person you are on the inside.

As much as dating can feel awkward and uncomfortable, you do it because there's a desired outcome and reward. You may feel nervous about it, but you still do it, because you understand the value behind it.

Public speaking also has desired outcomes and rewards. There is incredible value to getting in front of an audience and sharing your message. I've written about some of those benefits and outcomes here.

Avoiding public speaking because it's scary and you have to face the unknown is like avoiding dating because it's scary and you have to face the unknown.

What if you were to perceive the rewards of speaking the way you perceive the rewards of dating?

What if your biggest dreams of personal and professional success could be met just by getting in front of more audiences and giving more memorable and engaging presentations?

If you're ready to stop avoiding, if you're ready to take some risks in order to gain the rewards, if you want to know how to make your presentations more memorable and engaging, or if you just want to flesh out what those rewards might look like for you, get in touch.
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